by Gordon Franz
When the apostle Paul penned the epistle to the Ephesians in AD 62, Aquila and Priscilla were back in Rome after living and serving the church in Ephesus for several years. I am sure; however, they were not forgotten by the saints there. Perhaps the Apostle Paul had Aquila and Priscilla in mind as an example of a Spirit-filled husband and wife when he penned Eph. 5:18-33.
A Spirit-filled couple will have a godly marriage that will result in a powerful ministry for the Lord. Their marriage would exemplify, or picture, the love of Christ for the Church. Paul mentioned to the church in Rome that Aquila and Priscilla put their necks on the line for the Apostle Paul (Rom. 16:4). Since this couple risked their lives for Paul, I am certain Aquila would have laid down his life for his wife. Paul writes: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25).
The Lord Jesus in the Upper Room discourse states: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:12-14).
In this essay we will follow this couple as they travel for the Lord after they had come to faith in the Lord Jesus as their Messiah. We will observe how they were determined to serve Him together with a godly marriage for ministry. They labored in the gospel with the Apostle Paul, opened their home for the meeting of the local church and showed hospitality to traveling preachers.
Aquila and Priscilla Traveling for the Lord
Aquila in Pontus – Acts 18:2
Dr. Luke records the first meeting of the Apostle Paul with this couple in Corinth thus: “And he [Paul] found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them” (Acts 18:2). Aquila was originally from the Roman province of Pontus on the south shore of the Black Sea, called the Euxine Sea during the Roman period. His Latin name, Aquila, means “eagle.” Most likely he was a freedman living in Rome because most of the Jews living in Rome at this time were such.
We are not told where Priscilla is from, her ethnicity, or her religious heritage. Her name is a common Roman name among the aristocratic families. Luke hints at the fact that she is not of Jewish heritage because he states Aquila is Jewish, but does not refer to her as such. Whether she was a convert to Judaism, and thus a proselyte, or a convert to Christianity, we are not told. She could have been originally from Rome and Aquila met and married her in the Eternal City.
There are at least four possibilities as to how and when this couple came to faith in the Lord Jesus. First, Aquila could have heard the preaching of Peter in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost in AD 30. Dr. Luke records that there were Diaspora Jews from Pontus in Jerusalem for this festival (Acts 2:9). If Aquila heard Peter, he might have been touched by the words of the apostle and convicted by the Holy Spirit of his sin of unbelief. He realized he was a sinner, as we all are, and could not merit salvation or work for it. He realized the Lord Jesus was the Messiah of Israel who fulfilled the prophecies of His first coming to the earth. Aquila might have put his trust in the Lord Jesus as his Savior and Messiah at that time. When the festival was over, he returned to his Diaspora home in Pontus.
The second possibility is that he and his wife could have been part of the Jewish and proselyte delegation from Rome that made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Pentecost in AD 30 (Acts 2:10). This would have been another opportunity for them to come to faith. The third possibility could have been if Aquila heard the preaching of Peter on the apostle’s missionary trip through Pontus in AD 40-42 (I Peter 1:1; cf. Acts 12:17). Jerome, one of the early church fathers, states in his Lives of Illustrious Men: “Simon Peter … after having been bishop of the church in Antioch and having preached to the Dispersion – the believers in circumcision, in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia – pushed on to Rome in the second year of Claudius” (1994:3:361). The final possibility might have been if they were in Rome in AD 42 when Peter arrived in the second year of Claudius. Peter could have led them to the Lord at that time.
These possible scenarios also raise some interesting questions. Was Peter invited by Aquila to minister in Pontus on his first missionary journey in AD 40-42? This would have been a follow-up ministry visit to those who had come to faith in the Lord Jesus on the day of Pentecost ten years earlier. Did Peter take Aquila with him as a disciple when he ventured to the city of Rome after his first missionary journey? If this is the case, it would account for how Aquila got to Rome. Does a “nice Jewish boy” from Pontus marry a proselyte or Christian girl from Rome after Peter introduced them to each other? Was Aquila one of the leaders in the “pro-Cephas” faction in the church at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22)? If so, he was being loyal to the one who led him to the Lord and mentored him. These are questions that can be asked, but Scripture is silent as to the answers.
I am looking forward to that day in Heaven when I can sit down with Priscilla and Aquila and hear their life story. I am also curious to know how they risked their neck for the Apostle Paul. It should be easy to find the mansion that the Lord Jesus prepared for them (John 14:3) because it will have beautiful Corinthian columns in front of it!
Aquila and Priscilla’s name appears together six times (Acts 18:2,18,26; Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19), in the Textus Receptus, half the time she is mentioned before her husband (Acts 18:18; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19 where she is called Prisca). The name “Priscilla” is the diminutive of “Prisca.” I suspect her name was put first because she had a more active spiritual role in the church, but that is only speculation on my part.
Aquila and Priscilla in Rome – Acts 18:2
Scripture does state that Aquila and Priscilla were expelled from Rome by a decree during the days of Emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2). Most scholars date this decree to AD 49. There are some scholars, however, who have suggested AD 41 as the possible date for the expulsion (Murphy-O’Connor 1983:130-140; 1992:47-49). The Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote that “since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome” (Claudius 25:4; LCL 2:53). Whether Chrestus is another name for Christ, or the name of a Jewish rabble rouser in Rome, is debated. Dr. Luke records that Aquila and Priscilla “recently” arrived in Corinth from Rome. This would rule out the earlier expulsion in AD 41. But the record is clear; Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome.
Apparently Claudius’s decree did not discriminate between Jews and Messianic Jews, those Jews who had put their trust in the Lord Jesus as Messiah. Aquila, a Messianic Jew, and his wife Priscilla were included in the expulsion from Rome.
Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth – Acts 18:2-18
Aquila and Priscilla decided to relocate to the Roman colony of Corinth and practiced their trade of tentmaking in that cosmopolitan and Latin speaking city. They would have arrived several years before the Apostle Paul and most likely would have started evangelistic work in the city, or continued what the Apostle Peter may have started if he came through Corinth in AD 42.
In AD 52, Paul arrived in Corinth to begin his evangelistic endeavors. Silas and Timothy soon joined Paul in the work. Perhaps they had heard of the work in Corinth and came along to help. One other thing that may have attracted these three apostles to Corinth was the Isthmian Games that were held near Corinth (Acts 18:2-5).
The Apostle Paul was attracted to this couple, not only because of their common faith in the Lord Jesus, but also because of their common occupation. Dr. Luke records: “for by occupation they were tentmakers” (Acts 18:3). Both were involved in this trade which indicates that this was a family business.
There have been several suggestions as to what the “tentmaking” profession involved. Some have suggested, because Paul was from Tarsus in Cilicia, his father had taught him the trade of weaving tent cloth from goat’s hair (cilicium). Others have suggested, because the tents were made of leather, that the tentmaking involved leather working. Hiebert points out that “Paul’s father was a strict Pharisee (Acts 23:6) and thus regarded contact with the skins of dead animals as defiling, it seems improbable that he would have permitted his son to learn such a trade” (1992:29).
Aquila and Priscilla were from Rome and in the Eternal City there was a Tentmakers Associations, called in Latin collegium tabernaclariorum (Murphy-O’Conner 1992:44). Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) describes what was made of linen cloths: awnings used to cover theaters, the Roman Forum, the Sacred Way, and Nero’s amphitheaters. It was also used for awnings in houses and sails for ships (Natural History 19:23-25; LCL 5:435-437).
Aquila and Priscilla would have had no problem finding employment when they arrived in Corinth or establishing their own business. Shades were needed for the construction work going on in Corinth at this time, sails for ships were in need of mending as ships crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, and tents were in need of mending during the Isthmian Games. Their workshop afforded them the opportunity for evangelism (Hock 1978, 1979).
Where the shop was located in Corinth is an open question. Murphy-O’Conner suggested it might have been in the newly built North Market located just to the north of the Archaic Temple to Apollo (1983:169). However, a careful reading of the preliminary excavation report suggests this market had not been built at this time and was built by the initiative of Emperor Vespasian after the earthquake of AD 77-78 (de Waele 1930:453).
Aquila and Priscilla in Ephesus – Acts 18:19,24-28; 1 Cor. 16:19
After 18 months of ministering in Corinth, Paul decided to move his base of operation to Ephesus. He took Aquila and Priscilla to this major trading center on the west coast of Asia Minor, the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire; Rome, Alexandria and Antioch on the Orontes being larger (Acts 18:18,19). Paul left them there in order to establish the work in the city. He also promised that he would return to Ephesus after his visit to Jerusalem.
In Ephesus they established a church that met in their house (1 Cor. 16:19). This afforded them the opportunity to show hospitality to sinners and saints. One day, while attending the synagogue in Ephesus, they heard Apollos, a Jewish preacher from Alexandria (Egypt) who was eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures, but he only knew of the baptism of John (Acts 18:24-25). After the meeting, they took him aside, apparently to their home, and explained to him the finer points of the Word of God and his salvation (Acts 18:26).
Aquila and Priscilla did not have roast preacher for lunch that day, instead they had home-made apple pie on a silver platter. The Book of Proverbs says: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (25:11). I realize I am allegorizing this passage, but you get the point. They did not take him home and say, “That was a stupid sermon, don’t you know your Bible? Don’t you know what happened after John the Baptizer? Don’t you know about Jesus?” No, they brought him home, showed him hospitality by feeding him a good meal and then gently and lovingly “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26).
When Paul arrived in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, he ministered in the city for nearly three years (Acts 20:31). While there, he and Timothy had a discipleship program in the School of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9; 20:31). Paul did not want to be a burden on the church in Ephesus, so he stayed and worked with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 20:34). Some manuscripts in 1 Cor. 16:19 say, “Aquila and Prisca with whom I lodge” (Hiebert 1992:31).
In the quietness of the home, after the business of the day, the three of them discussed missionary strategy. While in Ephesus, Paul saw the importance of going to Rome. Most likely it was Aquila and Priscilla that planted the thought in his mind that the Spirit of God used to direct Paul’s ways (Acts 19:21). Several years later, Paul wrote to the Roman church from Corinth and he conveyed a more detailed and refined plan. He would stop by Rome on his way to Spain (1:10-13; 15:22-28).
Aquila and Priscilla in Rome Again – Rom. 16:3-4
The next time Aquila and Priscilla are recorded in Scripture is when they are back in Rome when the epistle to the Romans arrives in AD 58 (Rom. 16:3-5). Rome, not Corinth or Ephesus, was home for them, so they returned to the Eternal City sometime after the death of Claudius on October 13, AD 54 and Nero’s reversal of the Jewish expulsion decree. Murphy-O’Conner suggests they returned to Rome during the summer of AD 55 (1992:51).
Paul would have sent them on their way with his blessings because they would be preparing the church in Rome for his visit. Most likely they returned home via Corinth in order to visit the saints in that city. Possibly they persuaded Epaenetus to join them in the work in Rome as well (cf. Rom. 16:5b).
Paul indicates that there is a church meeting in their home (Rom. 16:5a). A 6th century AD tradition has it that their house church was on the Aventine Hill, on todays Via Prisca (Platner 1929:65-67). This site was excavated by the Augustinian monks of St. Prisca between 1934 and 1958. Underneath the church they found a Mithraeum with an altar dating to the 2nd century AD with statues of Oceanus Saturnus and Mithras killing the bull. This is called today the Mithraeum Domus Sanctae Priscae (Richardson 1992:257-258).
When Paul instructs the church at Rome to greet Priscilla and Aquila on his behalf, he describes them as his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also, all the churches of the Gentiles” (16:3b,4). Paul had labored with them in Corinth and the beginning of the work at Ephesus. Paul mentions an event that is unrecorded in the book of Acts: they put their life on the line for the Apostle Paul. What they did, we do not know, but it must have been heroic because the Gentile church gave thanks. We have a hint from Paul’s writings as to the nature of this event. He writes: “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivers us from so great a death, and does deliver us, in whom we trust that He will still deliver us” (2 Cor. 1:8-10; cf. Acts 20:19). Paul also mentioned fighting the beasts in Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32). Exactly what the “sentence of death in ourselves” or the circumstances leading up to fighting the beasts, we are not told. Perhaps the letter carrier told the Corinthian believers when he delivered the letter to them.
Whatever they did to risk their necks for Paul’s sake might have been in the back of the apostle’s mind when he wrote earlier in the epistle to the Romans: “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:7-8).
Why does Paul mention this event in his letter to the Romans? Some Gentile believers in the church in Rome may have wanted to marginalize this Messianic Jewish couple and the church that was in their home. Paul says to greet them (the Greek word has the idea of giving them a big bear hug) and thank them for risking their lives for his sake. Paul says that even their fellow Gentiles in churches in the east have been thankful for their testimony. In essence, Paul was trying to unify the church in Rome that was divided along economic, gender and ethnic lines.
The church had been meeting in the home of Aquila and Priscilla for nearly 10 years when a catastrophe struck. The Great Fire of July 19, AD 64, completely destroyed or seriously damaged 10 of the 14 districts of Rome, including the homes on the Aventine Hill. Aquila and Priscilla may have been homeless in Rome (again), along with tens of thousands of other Romans.
Perhaps they saw the handwriting on the wall. There were rumors that Nero had started this fire, thus making it a government induced crisis, so he could build his Domus Aurea (“Golden House/Palace”) and engage in extensive urban renewal (Suetonius, Nero 38; LCL 2:155,157; Tacitus, Annals 15:38-44; LCL 5:271-285). He quickly blamed the Christians for starting the fire and they were soon persecuted.
Aquila and Priscilla in Ephesus Again – 2 Tim. 4:19
Aquila and Priscilla, perhaps being homeless and fearing the persecution that followed the fire, presumably escaped to Ephesus. When Paul wrote his son in the faith, Timothy, who was in Ephesus in AD 67, he instructed him to “greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 4:19).
It may be instructive to note that Paul does not mention a church meeting in their house. This couple may have lost everything, and maybe in the Great Fire of Rome – their home, their business. They may have escaped with their lives, the shirt on their back, and any money they could carry. It could also be an indication that the church in Ephesus was well established and meeting in other places, thus there was no need for them to open their home.
Lessons from the Lives of Aquila and Priscilla
There are at least three lessons we can learn from the life of this godly couple who wanted their lives to be used in the service of the Lord. First, they understood the providential workings of God in their lives. Second, they experienced togetherness, some have suggested it should be “two-getherness” in their marriage. And finally, they put God first in their lives.
God’s Providence in the lives of Aquila and Priscilla
Let’s look at how the big picture may have taken shape. Perhaps we have a nice Jewish boy from Pontus who goes to Rome. He meets a nice aristocratic Gentile or Christian woman and they get married and begin to establish their lives together in Rome. Along comes Emperor Claudius and expels them from Rome so they lost their home and their business. In events like this, most people would have gotten bent out of shape by these events, but our couple may have considered that they still had each other, and that God, in His providence, may have moved them to Corinth where they met, ministered to, and eventually worked closely with the Apostle Paul in strategic missionary endeavors. Can anybody see the Hand of God here?
Nothing happens in our life by chance. We want to understand the “big picture” of our lives because God has put eternity in our hearts. We want to know the end from the beginning (Eccl. 3:11). But we don’t understand the “big picture” because we are frail, sinful, finite human beings, thus Solomon said to enjoy life, for it is a gift from God (Eccl. 2:24; 3:12-13,22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9). So as believers in the Lord Jesus, we must trust the Lord that He is sovereign and in control of every detail of our life. He is leading us by His Word and His providence in order that we might be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:18-30).
As I look back on my life, there are several pivotal events that set, or adjusted, the course of my life. One such event was in January 1988. I was team teaching a program for the Christian College Coalition at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies in Jerusalem. On our field trip to Bethany and the Mount of Olives, I was the last one on a completely full bus with only one seat left. The empty seat was next to Dr. Mike Wilkins from Talbot School of Theology in California. As we were chatting, he invited me to teach a class the next January at Talbot on the background to the life of Christ. God, in His providence, used that encounter in two ways. First, it got me to study the life of the Lord Jesus. Up until that time, all my studies, Biblically and archaeologically, had been in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Iron Age history and archaeology of Judah and Jerusalem. Second, while I was teaching the class in California the next January, I met Dr. Richard Rigsby. We began the Talbot Bible Lands program. So for most Januarys in the last 20 years, I have been running around Israel, Turkey, Greece or Rome with students from that school. Sometimes I wonder: “What if somebody else had sat next to Mike on that trip?” God in His providence had that seat empty. Nothing happens in our lives by chance. God had a purpose in the expulsion from Rome for Aquila and Pricilla.
The Two-getherness of Aquila and Priscilla
When Aquila and Priscilla are mentioned in scripture, they are always mentioned together, never separately. They appeared to be inseparable. Someone once said that “togetherness is a multifaceted thing that involves every dimension of our lives. There is emotional intimacy (the depth sharing of significant feelings), intellectual intimacy (the sharing in the world of ideas), aesthetic intimacy (the depth sharing of experiences of beauty), creative intimacy (the sharing of acts of creativity), recreational intimacy (sharing activities and fun times), work intimacy (sharing in common tasks), crisis intimacy (standing together against the buffeting of life), spiritual intimacy (the sharing of ultimate concerns), and sexual intimacy. True togetherness comes as we experience intimacy in each of these areas” (cited in Harbour 1979:121).
As we examine these nine aspects of intimacy, it can be observed from the limited information recorded in the Scriptures that Aquila and Priscilla experienced at least four of them. The first, spiritual intimacy is seen in the fact that their lives centered on the Lord and His Church. They opened their home up to the local church and they entertained traveling preachers. Second, work intimacy is seen in their tent-making together. Apparently this was a family business that they were both involved in. Third, instructing Apollos shows their intellectual intimacy. They both knew the Scriptures well and they wanted to share them with others. Finally, putting their life on the line for Paul’s sake and moving for the sake of the gospel showed their crisis intimacy. I am sure if Scripture had recorded more of the lives of these two saints, we would have seen more intimacy in their two-getherness.
Aquila and Priscilla put the Lord first in their lives
When the Lord Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, He said “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things [food, clothing and drink] shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). The Apostle Paul describes Aquila and Priscilla as “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 16:3). We have seen that this couple was missions minded, they opened their home so that the believers could gather to remember the Lord, pray, and have fellowship as they were instructed in the Word of God (cf. Acts 2:42). They also were engaged in “secular” employment so that they were not a financial burden on the churches. Yet God blessed them with a very successful business so they could show hospitality to the saints by inviting the church in their home. For a detailed discussion of hospitality in the church, see Strauch 1993.
May there be an increase in the church of couples like Aquila and Priscilla who have a godly marriage for ministry.
Bruce, F. F.
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